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Lincoln Chafes at Slow-Moving Union Generals

Given the number of defeats the Union army suffered in 1861, it is not surprising that President Abraham Lincoln was in the midst of despair concerning military campaigns in January 1862. For Lincoln, time was of the essence as he wanted to reunite the Union as quickly as possible. In January 1862, Lincoln was informed by three generals that there would be no immediate military campaigns to start the New Year.

With northern morale seemingly at low point, a financial crisis brewing and the Federal government having just averted conflict with Great Britain, there were those who felt like the Civil War was already lost. A correspondent for the London Times, serving in Washington D. C., wrote “the Union is broken for ever, and the independence of the South virtually established.”

Major General George B. McClellan, who assumed command of the eastern army and turned it into the Army of the Potomac, had contracted typhoid fever in mid-December and was still in ill health. McClellan had left the army to recover from his illness, leaving the Army of the Potomac without its leader for a month.

Even when healthy, McClellan was slow to fight so the promise of a military campaign in the east was on the far horizon. McClellan’s deliberate nature would be a source of contention with Lincoln for much of the year.

Meanwhile, Lincoln sent a telegraph to Major General Don Carlos Buell in Kentucky. Lincoln wanted Buell and the Army of the Ohio to begin a campaign to take eastern Tennessee. The mountain region of Tennessee was known to have strong Union sympathies. Lincoln believed East Tennessee would provide the Union with a military and political advantage. Buell failed to see Lincoln’s vision and replied to the president that an immediate campaign was not in the foreseeable future.

Lincoln also attempted to prod Major General Henry Halleck into action along the Mississippi River. Lincoln wanted to regain control of the entire Mississippi River as it was the economic interstate for goods produced in the Midwest. At first, Halleck failed to respond to Lincoln’s queries about when a campaign would commence. Eventually, Lincoln was told that an early campaign was impossible. Lincoln responded to Halleck, “It is exceedingly discouraging. As everywhere else, nothing can be done.”

On Jan. 10, 1862, Lincoln confided to Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, “General, what shall I do? The people are impatient; Chase has no money. . . the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?”

When matters seemed to be at their worst, an unusual teaming of individuals began work on a campaign. U. S. Flag Officer Andrew Foote was in need of sailors to man vessels he had received and confiscated for the Federal River Fleet. Foote asked for 1,000 men but only received 500. The government told Foote to get the rest of his sailors from the army.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant offered to supply Foote with sailors from soldiers who were serving time in guard houses for various offenses. These soldiers could escape confinement by serving in the Federal River Fleet. In a time when cooperation between army and navy was low, Grant figured out a way the two could work together.

In a month’s time, Grant and Foote’s collaboration continued first at Fort Henry and then at Fort Donelson in Tennessee. These victories paved the way for a campaign into Tennessee, giving the President something he desperately wanted.